The Ultimate Test
This week sees one of my four “must not miss” meetings as most eyes in the racing world focus on Epsom Downs for The Oaks and The Derby.
The other three “must not miss” meetings are, by the way, Cheltenham, Royal Ascot and Arc Weekend at Longchamp.
I have to fess up here and say The Derby has not always been a favourite race of mine but being of a certain age I am now in position where I am allowed to modify my views and for me it is now the supreme test for a horse on the flat. A race which, in its own way, is as demanding for the three year old colts as the Grand National is for seasoned handicap chasers.
In days of yore I used to spend Derby Day on The Hill, partly because it was free but even when I could afford to go to the main enclosures I still stuck with The Hill, not least because of the incredible buzz and atmosphere, even though viewing was restricted to the big screen.
Another advantage of being on The Hill is you can stroll to the start and see the top thoroughbreds prior to the race. Having been to the start of many races the atmosphere before The Derby is different. The usual banter is absent, even the usually exuberant Dettori is unusually quiet and contemplative. When the gates swing open the sheer horsepower is clearly evident.
Now Derby Day is a working day for me and I have even developed my own ritual on the day.
I ensure I am at the track by 8:30 in the morning and after a hearty breakfast I set off for what is now the most important part of the day for me, walking the course.
There is a surreal feeling walking across the near deserted Downs at 9:00 on Derby Day, it is difficult to imagine that in a few hours time there will be around 100,000 people, hopefully, enjoying the day.
Soon I am at the end of the racetrack and the only clue as to the importance of the position is a sign which reads “1½ Miles, Derby and Oaks Start, 2400 metres” .
Looking round you can see the course rising into the distance but even then you do not fully appreciate how difficult the course actually is. The first 3½ furlongs of the course is a steady uphill climb but it isn’t until you actually begin to walk it that you realise just how tough a climb it is.
Now I love walking – I will walk all day, however by the time I reach the top of the climb I invariably find my calf muscles beginning to tighten and beads of perspiration forming in places I do not want beads of perspiration forming and that is only going at a sedate pace.
By the mile pole the angle of ascent has decreased to a gentle incline, flattening out by the seven pole before a gentle left hand swing and finally a chance for the runners to get some breath into their lungs before beginning the descent for home.
The descent begins gently just after the six furlong marker, the speed increases but it isn’t going to get any easier as they head towards Tattenham Corner, jostling for position and the straight opens up before them.
A wide open expanse but this is no ordinary straight, the infamous camber will result in the unwary or unbalanced being pulled towards the far-side rail as if being pulled by some irresistible force.
Walking the course early morning there is an eerie quietness, come the race the horses will be meeting a wall of sound like they have never heard before, as the entire straight is lined on both sides by the shouting, cheering crowds.
It takes me about 35 minutes to walk the course, for the winner glory comes some 2½ minutes after the gate opens – running into the record books as winner of The Derby.
For me, after walking the course, a couple of bottles of water and a sit down. For winning connections, after the race, financial rewards and glory, for the winning horse the prospect of a life at stud.
For those who were there plenty of memories to take home.
The Derby, The Oaks and Coronation Cup are all hard races run on a very difficult course.
Can you imagine if Epsom came along today, as a new racecourse?
Do you think they would actually be granted a licence to race with such a testing, idiosyncratic track?
The answer is probably no but fortunately the course came along a long time before ‘elf and safety rules and overpowering officialdom.
As a result we have a race which is the ultimate test of the horse and horsemanship and long may it remain that way.